Sunday, November 28, 2004

Doomed by Hope

This week I listened to the Ronald Wright giving the Massey Lectures on Ideas. In the lectures, entitled A Short History of Progress, Wright walks through the history of humanity, pointing out a recurring pattern: a survival strategy that proves too successful, resulting in great wealth, a population boom, environmental exhaustion, and the collapse of the civilization. Without exception, each of these doomed civilizations embraced the belief that God or the Gods had showered them with blessings and would continue to do so indefinitely so long as they continued to make the proper obeyances. And these obeyances, which intensified when hard times came, only made the problems worse.

On Easter Island, for example, these obeyances involved a statuary cult, which required the villagers to cut down what few trees they had left to move and erect the giant heads of their ancestors. As a result, they had no wood to build boats to fish, no root systems to hold soil and water. They starved and dwindled to a shadow of their former glory, resorting to slavery and cannibalism. When the first white men arrived, they looked at their power and wealth, at the great ships of wood they sailed in, and despaired. The full folly of their actions and beliefs came home to them, and they began to attack the statues they had poured all of their wealth into.

While Easter Island is an extreme case, the belief that God will provide, that Our Way of Doing Things has received Divine blessing, was common to all the failed civilizations that Wright mentions. It was an essential contributor to the eventual collapse of each of them, by lulling the population into false hope and defending entrenched folly from challenge. Indeed, as the problems inherent in the system became more obvious, so too does the pressure for orthodoxy. We can already see this happening in the United States, where the administration is actively involved in supressing science critical to its policies, and religious orthodoxy is joining forces with economic orthodoxy. Seen in light of this historical tendency, the blind adherence amongst even the poorest to ideologies destructive to their own interests is not surprising. The yawning abyss is so frightening, and the solution so complex and demanding, that most would rather drift into a sleep of false hope than embrace the true hope of facing the problem and dealing with it.

Here is a partial list of some of the challenges we are facing. First, we are incredibly dependent on oil. Oil heats our homes, brings goods to us, powers the machinery used in farming and manufacturing, and is the raw material both for plastics and for the fertilizers we sustain our crops with. Without oil, we not only lose our standard of living, we can no longer feed ourselves. Even the crops used for production of oil substitutes are produced using oil based fertilizers. And we are running out of oil. As one Saudi Sheik put it, "My grandfather rode a camel, I drive a car, my son flies a jet, and my grandson will ride a camel." But you cannot support our population with camels. We need to reduce our energy consumption, find ways to recycle human waste into fertilizer, and dedicate more effort into finding alternative energy sources. Given the urgency of the situation, the partisan bickering over international fusion research is outrageous.

We are losing arable land to soil erosion and urbanization at the rate of an area the size of Scotland each year. I have always been appalled on visits to Toronto, knowing that Toronto is expanding over what I know to be the best agricultural land in Canada. As agricultural land is destroyed, the remaining land is subjected to more intensive and exhaustive use, accelerating the rate of decline. We need to stop building out and start building up, reserving arable land for agriculture, or allowing it to rest fallow, planting trees on it to hold the soil.

In the American mid-west, the bread basket of the United States, the water table is being rapidly depleted. Global warming is making the problem worse. Desperately searching for more water, the Americans are looking north to the Great Lakes and the water table of the Canadian shield. But the Great Lakes are badly polluted, and irrigation with Great Lakes water would turn the soil into a toxic desert very quickly. As for the Canadian shield, it is actually a thin layer of water spread across a pitted sheet of rock. It seems extensive only because it is all sitting out in the open, constantly being recycled by evaporation and precipitation. It would have to be piped out one lake at a time, a very expensive proposition. It is also a very fragile system, supporting a wilderness which consists largely of small stunted trees clinging to thin soil, which could very easily be transformed into a rocky wasteland. The drought of the mid-west would spread to become the drought of the northeast. We must stop polluting the water we have, cutting trees, which are essential to the maintenance of the water table, and reduce the amount of water we use. We must also find a way to build viable desalination plants to supply dry areas in the southwest, leaving the water in the mid-west solely for use by that area. Done properly (and energy requirement is a large factor here,) desalination could provide major fringe benefits--large amounts of rare elements are suspended in sea water, including gold and silver.

Another recurring feature in each of these failed civilizations is a growing disparity between rich and poor. This is also something we can see occuring now in our own civilization. This disparity induces a desparation in the populace, driving consumption and exhaustion of the environment. This is very pronounced in the third world, where rain forests are being cut down to produce short term econonmic gain and short lived agricultural areas, which quickly deteriorate into deserts. Small family farms, which respect the land they use as the future source of livelihood for themselves and their children, are being replaced by industrial agriculture which is bent on short term gains at the expense of long term viability. The solution would be to subsidize small scale farming for domestic consumption, while removing subsidies for exported food so that family farms in the third world can compete in their own markets. It is also time to insist that those who gain the most benefit from living in our society pay for that benefit. Supply side economics has been tried in every major empire throughout history. It has never worked. There is simply no evidence to support the superstition that it will work now.

But most of all, we have to face up to our problems, rather than expect that God is going to come back and clean our diapers. If there is one epitaph that would be suitable for all failed civilization, it would be "God will provide." Even if you believe that God created the world, you must concede that there is no greater act of ingratitude than to decimate the world God made and cover it with your own shit. This would be like moving into an apartment, ripping up the floor boards, breaking the windows, smearing the walls with feces, building a bonfire in the living room--and then expecting the landlord to pay you for the honour of your tenancy. Even atheists have more class than this. For those who think that God is waiting in heaven to reward them for this, think again. If we build a hell on earth, to expect anything better as a reward is pure infantile arrogance.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The RIAA... in a Perfect World

I'm about to buy an MP3 player, probably an iPod. I would like to buy CD's and rip them on to the player, but a lot of CD's now come with copy protection, which prevents them from being played on computer and converted to MP3's. I suppose I could buy the tracks at a buck apiece from iTunes, and I probably will for some, but this means that where I might have bought an entire CD, I will now buy perhaps one or two songs from the album. The other option is just to browse other people's music collections and grab MP3's that have already been ripped. This bypasses the problem of limited online selection and protected disks, so I'll probably being doing a fair amount of this.

The absurd thing is that I really don't want to. I would like to pay the artists for their work, but thanks to the weapons-grade stupidity of the recording industry, this is often not an option, not if I simply want to buy the song and transfer it to whatever medium I need. This is called fair use. The law guarantees my right to do this. The recording industry, however, has little interest in the rights of their customers or their artists. Bands who have multi-million selling albums find themselves financing the promotional tours for those albums out of their own pockets, while their labels rob them blind and leave them with nothing afterwards. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were almost bankrupt by 1970, and David Bowie was perpetually broke till he took control of his own finances. Any lip service the recording industry pays to the artists is just that. And when file sharing appeared, instead of embracing it or attempting to protect the rights of the artists, they profoundly offended the technical community by trying to cripple hardward and software which is often used only coincidentally for that purpose. The motto of the retail industry used to be "The customer is always right." When the RIAA went after file sharers with lawyers and lobby groups, we could all smell the rank stench of monopoly--because only monopolies don't have to give a damn what their customers want.

When the recording industry first appeared, sheet music vendors fought to protect their market. They lost. Hollywood is where it is because the west coast was far enough away from Edison, who held the patent on the movie camera, that they could avoid paying royalties. And the movie industry's concern over this issue is a joke--the people who download movies are getting poor quality copies that take hours to download, even with high speed lines. It's not even a factor in sales--the real threat is what it has always been, contraband copies made in Asia and packaged as the real thing. Besides, look at the DVD sales for Star Wars, bought primarily by nerds who know how to get it online. Those who like the movie buy it anyway. And yet we have people in LucasFilms saying that the business will collapse in a couple of years because of file sharing. LucasFilms problems have less to do with that and more to do with the fact that George Lucas won't allow anyone to tell him when one of his plot ideas suck. If he collaborated on his scripts, as he did on the original Star Wars, he might have avoided some of the howlers and wooden characters that so annoyed his fans. Nobody is so good that they can't benefit from criticism.

This is the story of what the recording industry did. I would like to offer an alternative of what they should have done--put the following notice in each of their CD's and DVD's:

This disk has no copy protection whatsoever. You can transfer, copy, rip, and burn it to your heart's content. You can even hand out these copies to other people, with one proviso: insist that if they like it, they should go out and buy their own copy.

Every dollar you spend is a vote. Paying for this is a way of telling the artists you like it and want more. If you like this music, paying for it means that you will get more; more from this artist, and more from similar artists--and maybe even music from artists you will want to hear who are quite different, but otherwise wouldn't have enough support to get started. You may think that recording artists make a lot of money and don't need your support. In fact, there are a lot of expenses that they incur just to make and promote this album, and it takes a lot of sales just to break even. And hey, if they do get filthy rich, it may take a lot of money to persuade them to get back into the studio. Either way, you get more of what you want.

If you don't pay for this, and a lot of people who like it copy it for free, the artists will have to get a day job. They will stop making albums, and probably won't play anywhere more than a day's journey from home. Sucks to be you. The music that you like won't be made anymore. And every time you turn on the radio, you will hear music made by people whose fans are just too damned stupid to know how to copy it.

So, do what you want. But if everything on the radio and at the music store is infantile crap, don't blame us. We warned you.

That's what they should be doing. Of course, they're not. Wall Street has a saying: "A bear can make money, a bull can make money. A pig always gets slaughtered." The RIAA is a pig. They deserve what they're going to get.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Update on The Religious Problem

Norma points out that the religious vote didn't come out solidly for Bush, as was claimed immediately after the election. In fact, this was discounted within days of the election, but that hasn't stopped a lot of Democrats from claiming that the Democrats need to change their strategy, and a lot of Republicans from gloating that they have this section of the vote in the bag (wait for an avalanche of books on this--I'm sure some are on the press even as we speak.) The previous posting was actually something I'd posted on a site where one of these arguments was still going on. I was responding to this perception, and saying that even if it were true, there might be a good reason not to change strategies. I just tacked on the first paragraph when I copied it here, and it didn't provide enough context.

And just to clarify some of the topics on this blog, I didn't lose my faith on 9/11--I'd stopped believing in an interventionist Supreme Being a long time ago. Even if there was some kind of intelligent entity responsible for the origins of the Universe, it would stand outside of time and space, operate by utterly alien principles, and its characteristics and intentions would be so completely orthogonal to ours that our needs and desires would be largely irrelevant to it. But I had always defended people who chose to believe, believing that it did more good than harm. I considered it a noble fiction, and insisted that it was given a bad name by a handful of demagogues and fanatics. 9/11 changed that. The situation in the Islamic world brought home the parallels in Christian history, and for most of that history Christianity has been a cause for war rather than peace. 9/11 was when I started to suspect that religion itself might not be such a good thing, and may in fact encourage as many sins as virtues, or simply serve as a perpetual justification device. And the freak show in the Middle East has a lot more to do with that then Jerry Falwell.

This does not mean that I believe that religion should be abolished. We couldn't, even if we wanted to. And frankly, I find the most loathsome religious converts to be those who have had no serious exposure to it prior to their conversion--they combine profound ignorance with irrational certainty. But religions do have to be moderated, and the moderating influence will not come from within. Triumphalist religions are very polite when they haven't sufficient power to attack their rivals, or when they have so much power that their rivals cannot pose a threat. Between those two extremes lay a wide bloody country, and once you enter into that country, there is no telling when you'll be able to get out. So each religion must be kept in the position of a voice in the choir. Once one of them becomes the conductor, they will exchange the wand for a gun.

Thanks for the comment, though, Norma. :)

The Religious Problem

Over the past couple of weeks I have heard a lot of Democrats and Republicans alike arguing that the Democratic disdain for religion is wrong and arrogant. There is, I believe, another factor involved here, which may outweigh even the need to win votes.

Prior to 9/11, I was a defender of religion. Watching the towers burn and hearing that Falwell and Robertson were trying to spin it to incite hatred of liberals and homosexuals, I washed my hands of it forever--though the language and ideals of my Catholic upbringing will always be part of me. I suspect that many people have come to the same conclusion. There is simply no place for fanatacism and magical thinking in a world where human beings have the capacity for destruction that we have now.

As much as one might like to claim that fanatics do not represent the true spirit of Islam, Christianity, or any of the other of most prevalent religions, passages exist in both the Bible and the Koran that can be used to justify atrocities. And all attempts to reclaim them from within are just battles of opinion, the emphasis of one part of the faith over the other. The moderation of Christian fanaticism came from outside, from the Enlightenment, which informed most of our modern institutions, especially the separation of Church and State. Rational-empiricism and the scientific method continue to weigh against fanaticism, by discouraging any claim to absolute certainty and demanding evidence and sound reasoning. The true enemy of Al Qaeda is not Christianity, but modernity.

The Democrats' dislike for religion may have the same roots. Wooing religious voters with religious appeals seems too much like sleeping with the enemy--the very enemy that struck on 9/11. What the rest of the world is seeing when they look at George Bush and Osama bin Laden are two opponents of the same basic kind, both in agreement that this is a Holy Crusade. Hardly a reassuring thought, because these are precisely the terms that Political Islam would like to use in the discussion. They're still angry about the medieval Crusades, and they want to fight them all over again.

Also troubling are the 'values' embraced by the Religious Right. Notice that nearly all of them are focussed on sex: homosexuality, abortion, promiscuity, and sexual content in the media. Other conservative values, relating to self-reliance, hard work, etc, are neither unique to the Religious Right nor indispensable to them. These prurient values are peripheral to Christianity at best, their importance justified by isolated passages in the Bible--and indeed, are often countered by other passages. They are, in fact, 'tabloid' values, whose primary motivation lies in titilation. Next time you go to the supermarket, grab one of the tabloids, and read what's in it. You will see articles decrying the decline of moral values right next to the latest paparazi pics of semi-nude celebrities. What better way to hide your arousal, even from yourself, than to protest loudly about the morals of the object of your lust? This is the time honoured strategy of religious hypocrites since time immemorial. Thus, the bhurka, the hijab, the Muslim extremist rape squads, honour killings, and the excesses of the Taliban.

It is hard to embrace values which have so much in common with those of the very people who have sworn to destroy you and everything you hold dear. Can you give a nod and a wink to the very tendencies that conspired to create that enemy? If Christianity descends again into the abyss that has claimed Islam, can you, in all good conscience, make a deal with the devil? Or do you fight it, knowing it will cost you.

The choice that Democrats are facing, though no one has phrased it as such, is between power and salvation. Do you fight for America's votes, or do you fight for America's soul?

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Marx's Skeleton

In my last post I mentioned how the Communism deformed politics and discussions of religion. I'd like to expand on that here.

There is not and never has been such a thing as a Communist system. Marxist ethics are derived from Christianity, which came to him through his father's own conversion, Christian influences in Hegel, and from other young Hegelians, most notably Feuerbach. The slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is almost a paraphrase of the arrangement under which the apostles lived in Acts 2:44, 45. Charity lies at the root of Marx's critique of Capitalism. But Marx never actually proposed any means to bring people to embrace charity as a way of life. He simply criticised the existing system, called for its abolishment, and hoped that something better would replace it. In this sense, Communism is a true castle in the sky: beautiful, noble, desirable, but with no road to reach it. It was a pipe dream. Marx had no stomach for the real struggle, which takes place in the individual human soul, without which all other struggles are doomed to failure.

Enter Dostoyevsky's 'Demons', the Nihilists and revolutionaries, and their successors, the Bolsheviks. They too, wanted to destroy the system, but with no idea of what to replace it with. For the Nihilists, destruction itself was the goal. But underlying this goal was the desire to invoke chaos and, out of the ashes of the world, create a new order--with the revolutionaries as the masters of this new order. The goal was not improvement, but power. Still, no one is going to give you power just because you ask for it. In order to gain support and thereby claim power, you must do so, or at least appear to do so, in the name of a higher principle. Religion in Russia was already controlled by the Russian Orthodox Church, so a new religion was needed. Communism was a perfect fit--it stole all the moral thunder of the church, while undermining its authority. It too called for the destruction of the current order, but left the field clear afterwards. There was no plan. The plan could therefore be provided by the Bolsheviks themselves, tailored to suit their ambitions.

Some of the Bolsheviks were probably idealists, but the idealists lost. Stalin, murderer of the Czar, became the new Czar in all but name. A former seminary student, Stalin was well versed in how to cloak raw ambition and ruthless dictatorship in the guise of benevolent moral language. Stalin's body counts exceeded those of Hitler. In the name of prosperity and plenty he devastated the economy, making the rich poorer without making the poor richer. He took the Ukraine, the bread basket of Eastern Europe, and imposed draconian collective farming methods which turned surplus into drastic shortages, causing a famine which killed 30 million people. In the name of charity he robbed everyone blind, while he and his cadre of party bosses lived in luxury. While he spoke of brotherhood, and everyone called each other comrade, he instigated a system of denunciation that set all against all, till neighbours and family members denounced each other to the Gulag or firing squad for minor personal gain. Behind the window dressing of Communist ideology, he ruled with a despotic power that Ivan the Terrible would have envied. Communism itself was but a mirage to hide this.

And yet, everyone fell for it, friend and foe. Leftists in Europe continued to defend Stalin and his thugs, but worse, his enemies fell for the bait. Stalin and his successors waved the red flag like a bullfighter's cape, and the Anti-Communists, like Senator Joe McCarthy, were all bull. They bought the Stalinist message, hook, party line, and sinker. Thus distracted, they moved towards building their own Stalinist state, beginning with denunciations and the castration of popular culture. The real enemy was Stalinism, and there was no more fervent Stalinist in America than McCarthy himself. But what continues to haunt us is that the Anti-Communists allowed the Communists to define the terms of the argument. If the despotic Stalinists were socialists, then freedom meant capitalism. If Communism was spreading by the creation of puppet dictatorships, then the solution was puppet dictatorships friendly to capitalism. Democracy became a mere invocation, sacred, but inconvenient in practice. The Americans were even seduced by the pseudo-scientific fantasies of the Stalinists, drunk on vodka and power and lies. The pursued their own mind control programs (MK Ultra), attempted to establish bizarre occult operations involving astral projection and remote viewing, telepathy and telekinesis. All of it was nonsense, but these illustrate how completely the Stalinists had duped their enemies.

Yet in misunderstanding their enemy, the Anti-Communists also forgot themselves and their own strengths. Capitalism works because it can provide the broadest level of cooperation of any system. Stalinism, contrary to the Communist propaganda, created a society of total competition. In Capitalism, competition governs only rare and distant social relationships--between those of competing companies. The tightest and most common relationships, between co-workers, between employee and employer, and between business and clients, must be cooperative in order for the business to succeed. Efficiency is increased by eliminating competition as much as possible. A football game may be entertaining to watch, but if your society's goal is to move the ball, you want all the teams running the same way. Competition between businesses serves this by discouraging cooperation within cartels which benefit a small portion of society at the expense of greater number. This ensures that individual businesses must work with the customer, rather than acting as a group against them. Since the business-client relationship is far more common, this establishes broader cooperation within the society. Capitalism, however, must be managed and corrected continously by government. And Democracy is a means of enforcing cooperation between the government and the governed.

This understanding of Capitalism and Democracy was one of the first casualties of the cold war, and the loss of it continues to haunt us today. As a result of the Stalinist myth of Communism, unregulated capitalism has come to be seen as a pure good. In fact, the very right of property only exists through government enforcement, and bad policy can permit Capitalism to deteriorate through greed, exploitation, and massive disparity. The very survival of Capitalism requires that businesses have markets for their goods, which can only happen if the working and middle classes have a disposable income. Otherwise the economic system deteriorates into a giant casino, with the very rich placing bets on properties, stocks, and securities, while the poor go unemployed. The most successful businesses are also those that give their employees a major stake in the success of the business. Exploitation is not just immoral, it is bad management. It is also essential that the rich, who derive the greatest benefit from citizenship and the powers of government through law enforcement, utilities, courts, and regulations, pay a proportionally greater share for its upkeep. This is simply fair market value for services received.

Most of all, we must take Marx's skeleton out of the closet and bury it. The values of charity, cooperation, equality, and rationality were never the property of the Communists. They were appropriated by liars and thieves, but they have always belonged to our entire civilization. It is time to stop chasing shadows and reclaim them.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Talking to the Faithful

There's been a lot of buzz lately about the divide on 'moral values' lately. At first it seemed that this was the dividing line that determined the election, but a closer look indicates that it played the same role it always has--no more and no less. But while this incorrect perception lasted, the question that was tossed about was: how do the secular talk to the religious? Can they? Should they?

There was a time that the left gained a good deal of its support from believers, who often saw the primary moral value of religion as charity, and saw the left as best suited to champion this cause. But during the Communist scare in the 50's, government charity was associated with Communism, which was of course, Godless and Evil. This line of reasoning has been pursued ever since. Never mind that Communism never existed, that it was only a red flag waved by what were essentially political thugs who had little interest in charity, to distract people while they ran a fairly generic totalitarian state. The character of these totalitarian states had far less to do with Marx than they did with the ambitions of their leaders. Nevertheless, the terms of the cold war skewed politics and discussion of values permanently.

The 'values' of Christian America can best be seen in the prurient nonsense spewed by the supermarket tabloids; news bites obsessed with subjects that are at best fringe issues to Christianity itself, drawn from a few isolated passages from the Bible. Homosexuality, promiscuity, and the use of drugs and alcohol provide titillating anecdotes, but these are not and never have been the focus of the core values of Christianity. These play to voyeuristic impulses, not moral sensitivity. Shock rockers like Marilyn Manson and Madonna make their names by playing on these superficial distractions. Abortion is a recent issue, never touched on by the Bible (indeed, there are passages in the Bible that would appear to condone even infanticide), and the Christian response to abortion has actually made the situation worse by delaying abortions till later in pregnancy, interfering with birth control and thereby making abortion more likely, and by making abortions themselves more dangerous.

Stated briefy, the core values of Christianity, and indeed of all major religions, are faith, hope, charity, and honesty. Faith and hope are essentially the same: a willingness to trust in oneself and others, and to face the world without fear. Instead, we live in a culture of fear. Faith itself has been trivialized to the rote belief of a few scriptural myths. It has little bearing on the real world beyond the mere act of testimonial--words, rather than action. If the facts do not conform to these myths, the faithful ignore them, or attempt to turn relativism to their own purpose. So much for honesty. Charity is for suckers. The poor are to be despised and spat upon, kept at bay by gates and police, and the rich enjoy their priveleges seemingly by divine right. Despite a growing gap between the richest and poorest, the rich demand more tax cuts and grouse about welfare bums. All the while, global financiers saddle impoverished peoples with crippling debt and call it responsibility, depite the fact that much of this money has been used to buy arms from the first world, worsening the misery of the third world and destroying what little ability they have to repay their debts. And Christians seem to have little or nothing to say about all this.

For those who wish to return to Christian values, and to those who wish to speak in terms of those values, I suggest that they try to understand what those values are. And to those who claim that America is a Christian nation, I echo Ghandi's comment about western civilization: "I think it would be a good idea."